A new weapon to mitigate that problem might come from an odd source: Researchers at the Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory have modified sawdust to deal with some of the particular challenges of cleaning up oil spills in the Arctic, where ice can push oil below the water surface, and rough waves can spread the oil out.
“The material is incredibly buoyant,” says Pacific Northwest National Laboratory microbiologist George Bonheyo. “It will float for months, in fact. That also helps keep the oil right at the surface of the water where it’s easier to treat as a consequence.”
With a thin layer of sawdust, it’s possible to quickly absorb oil in a spill. By adding microorganisms to the new product, it also becomes a bioremediation tool: the organisms eat the oil, cleaning it up.
The material could also be skimmed off the water, though that’s more challenging to do in the Arctic. In the case of a large spill, workers may use another approach–burning the oil-soaked sawdust.